This is a hot story about my spicy late mother-in-law Rose Madeline, who was one of my favorite people on the planet. We called her Madeline. She was the child of Sicilian parents who immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century. She loved zesty foods beyond those of her family’s traditions, and during the years I knew her, she relished hot spices.

All this came into sharp focus for me after my wife Ellen and I moved to Austin, Texas, over a decade ago. We learned on her visits here, for example, that she loved spicy Texas barbecue, Mexican, and Tex-Mex foods. She often added hot sauce on top of barbecue sauce that she felt was just too mild in general, and her favorite brand of the hot stuff was Cholula.

Madeline during a Texas visit in 2003.

Madeline during a Texas visit in 2003.

She often remarked after returning to Chicago from her visits with us that she missed the spicy hot food traditions of Texas. After one of those conversations, as a little joke, we sent her a bottle of Cholula sauce to keep in her purse when she went out to eat in the Windy City. But her daughters Bobbie Manning and Star Summerfield, who lived near her, said she wouldn’t dream of taking any kind of food product in her purse and that she just used it at home–as we suspected.

Cholula Hot Sauce, now our reminder of Madeline.

Cholula Hot Sauce, a distinctive reminder of Madeline. (Photo credit)

But the funniest incident with her and spicy food was on a visit with us when she wanted to go out for tamales. We took her to the popular Rosie’s Tamale House, an institution in Central Texas. When she began to eat her tamales, she told me her salsa was not hot enough and asked me to see if they had a hotter salsa. I asked the guy behind the counter and he gave me a cup of habanero salsa, something that is so hot I would only eat it at gunpoint.

Returning to our table I told Madeline that this salsa would be hot and to be careful with it. She kind of scoffed at the idea of being careful with it, and spread it over a hot tamale.

Her first bite of it produced a two-thumbs-up assessment. Then shortly after she swallowed that bite, her eyes lit up and quickly teared, her face turned red, and she began to fan her mouth with her hand. Then she grabbed a glass of ice water to extinguish the fire. Being a consummate good sport, she laughed with the rest of us.

We joked with her about this often up until her health deteriorated to the point where jokes were out of place. All of our lives were diminished by the loss of joy in her life. Her passing a few years ago left a void that cannot be filled.

Ever since her passing Ellen and I have kept a bottle of Cholula hot sauce in our pantry. We use it to season dishes of various kinds and we offer it to guests who want to add a little kick to some of the meals we prepare.

Something about seeing that bottle in our pantry earlier this week caused me to look at it differently. It’s almost like a secret memorial to Madeline’s love of spicy food. We never use Cholula sauce without thinking of her. We often associate that thought with her request for a hotter salsa at Rosie’s Tamale House. And we remember her reaction to it.

I guess nearly all of us have special triggers that bring up a favorite memory of loved ones who are no longer with us. Seeing our bottle of Cholula sauce in our pantry triggered this line of thought, and now a flood of other things come to mind that I associate with other departed family members.

And a bottle of Cholula sauce started it all.

– – – – –

With gratitude to my sisters-in-law Bobbie Manning and Star Summerfield for reviewing and commenting on a draft of this story. They are spicy ladies themselves–no surprise there.